Confused, concerned, scared — Auburn’s campus community was all of those things last Thursday.
Rumors swirled about an active shooter on campus, a drug ring that ran in the basement of RBD and a live birth that occurred in Mell to cover up a police raid.
Those rumors were just that, rumors.
There was no drug ring in the basement of the library. There was no complex police raid shrouded in the fog of a live birth in Mell.
Part of that rumor mill was influenced by real events.
The police did chase a man, Mitchell Lee Stewart, across campus after he ran from a routine traffic stop and proceeded to flee the car he was in near Spidle Hall.
Police finally tased and arrested him in front of the Student Center.
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No, he did not have a gun.
Auburn city police officers pulled tasers and a gun on him in the middle of the foot pursuit.
Auburn University’s Campus Safety and Security office did not send an AU Alert or a public safety notice.
Instead, the chase and arrest were witnessed by several students on campus, who quickly shared and spread the photos, videos and rumors about the event on social media.
Auburn students’ phones were abuzz with all sorts of rumors about a threat on campus.
Twitter and Snapchat sent wild rumors to almost every students’ phone in just a few minutes; yet, University officials avoided sending any sort of campus-wide notification until about 5:30 p.m., when an email was sent out letting students know the chase was deemed not a threat to students.
In a time when schools rehearse active shooter drills and mass shootings are becoming a regular occurrence, it was not far-fetched to believe that the police were chasing a man with a gun on campus.
Many students believed that to be the case. Some barricaded themselves in rooms.
Others were ducking and running across the concourses on campus.
The officers in pursuit of the man on campus did not make students believe any different. As they passed students, the officers yelled at them to get down — with weapons drawn.
So, the rumor mill swirled. Students perceived a threat on campus because it seemed that there was a threat on campus.
They shared what they perceived to be occurring, and Campus Safety did little to make students believe that anything different was happening.
Luckily, news of Stewart’s arrest spread almost as quickly as the initial rumors of a perceived threat on campus.
The only true corrections to the record, though, came from student media and, later, from outside news sources, who relayed information from city police.
The silence from the University was dangerous in itself.
This silence opened the door for rumors to swirl around campus and persist with fervor until they finally made a statement, via an email hours later, insisting that there was no threat on campus.
It would have been easy to let students know that there was no threat on campus via an AU Alert immediately upon the situation’s end.
Instead, a campus-wide email was sent hours later at 5:30 p.m. In the email, which appeared defensive, officials declared that there was never a threat and assured the public that the office did the right thing.
It is the Office of Campus Safety and Security’s job to keep Auburn’s student body safe and informed.
Perhaps not every event that occurs requires an AU Alert, but at the very least, students deserve to know they are safe just as they deserve to know if they are in danger.
A campus-wide email sent in a timely manner is an alternative to an AU Alert.
It would have sufficiently informed students on what happened and the absence of a threat. That would have only worked if it had been sent immediately following the chase and arrest.
Sending a public safety notice or advisory warning via email is a more popular option with the campus security office. They are sent frequently to detail reports of arrests, assaults that occur on campus and even a rabid raccoon in 2015.
Instead of a notice from the Office of Campus Safety and Security, many students relied on the quick reporting from The Plainsman and other local news sources to understand what happened and that there had been no threat on campus.
While The Plainsman prides itself on its ability to report on such events quickly and to a large audience in the Auburn community, it is not a channel that is able to reach every Auburn student, staff and faculty member.
This apparent lack of communication, or lack of timely communication, from Campus Safety and Security with the rest of campus is nothing new and seems to be something of a habit from this office.
A rape and assault that occurred on a Tiger Transit bus in the fall of 2017 were never communicated to the student body through an AU Alert.
But recently, we have seen proper communication. Earlier in January, two AU Alerts were sent to notify students about a suspicious package that turned out not to be a threat.
If a wild raccoon warrants notification, a police foot chase through campus with weapons drawn certainly does.
When there is a public safety threat, or a perceived public safety threat, Auburn’s student body deserves a timely, informative notification.
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